A Little Folly Goes a Long Way

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
    but a fool’s heart to the left.
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. Ecclesiastes 10:1-7 ESV

There is little doubt that Solomon was a big fan of wisdom. He knew first-hand the value that wisdom could afford a man. But he also knew that wisdom has its limits. In the world in which he lived, there was no one who possessed perfect wisdom. Even he, the wisest man who ever lived, had made foolish mistakes. Despite the vast amount of God-given wisdom he possessed, he had ended up violating the commands of God. During his long life, he had made many unwise decisions that had left an indelible mark on his life and his reign as king.

That seems to be his point in verse 1, where he uses the metaphor of a fly in the ointment. The ointment Solomon had in mind was most likely olive oil, which was used as both a perfume and a healing agent. Like wisdom, the ointment was intended to have a positive effect, acting as a sweet-smelling perfume or a health-inducing medicine. But one dead fly could turn the positive properties of ointment into a diseased-filled, stench-producing product that was of no good to anyone. In the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of even a modicum of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul used a similar metaphor when he warned against the impact of false teaching on the church.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! – Galatians 5:9 NLT

There are two ways we can look at Ecclesiastes 10:1. The first is that a wise person can destroy their reputation for wisdom by making one foolish decision. It can become like a fly in the ointment, quickly nullifying the years of beneficial value established by living a life of wisdom. But it can also refer to the impact one fool can have on a family, community, or nation. All it takes is a single individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions would eventually reap devastating consequences for the nation of Israel. The kingdom his father David had established would end up divided in half and would never regain its former glory. The book of 1 Kings provides a description of Solomon’s fly-in-the-ointment failure that led to God’s removal of him as king and the division of the Davidic Kingdom.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:9-13 NLT

And perhaps it was because Solomon had seen the error of his ways, even if a bit too late, that he spoke so often and so highly of wisdom. He knew that godly wisdom was a deterrent to poor decision-making because it led its adherents down the right path.

But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light,
growing brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like gloomy darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over. – Proverbs 4:18-19 NLT

Solomon knew that a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, would allow his deceived heart to lead him down the wrong path. And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is godless and unrighteous.

Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool. – Ecclesiastes 10:3 ESV

He’s unable to hide his foolishness because his life choices provide glaring evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides a real-life example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man.

If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. – Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV

If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond with wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow foolish pride to dictate your response and determine your fate.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce the right reaction from the one who is angry and acting unjustly. But a wise person will not allow the foolish behavior of another to infect and affect their own behavior.

The truth is, there are sometimes fools sitting in places of authority who wield great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he writes, “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place” (Ecclesiastes 10:6 ESV). The sad reality is that the undeserving and unqualified are sometimes rewarded with positions of power where they rule over those with greater skills and proven track records of success. Solomon refers to them as “rich”, but the Hebrew word can refer to someone who is honorable and noble. In other words, they are someone of worth and character who finds themselves placed in an inferior position and having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. But it’s just a reality of life.

Like Solomon, we live in a world that is sometimes topsy-turvy, where everything appears to be just the opposite of what it should be. In his day, he put this incongruity in visual terms, describing the disturbing sight of “slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves” (Ecclesiastes 10:7 ESV).

This was just further proof of the injustice and inequities that abound in this life. And we see the same thing in our day. How many times have we witnessed the promotion of a less-qualified individual for a position of prominence in our company? How often have we seen the undeserving fast-tracked to promotion while the more gifted and talented are overlooked? We have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But the fact that it happens doesn’t disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It’s simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that permeates our fallen world.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

What an apt description of the world in which we live. And it was true in Solomon’s day as well. It is the nature of life in a world where godlessness has produced a pandemic of foolishness. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone cannot rectify the problem we face in this world. As Solomon so aptly put it in Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Without a knowledge of God and a reverence for who He is, humanity lacks the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, mankind invariably turns to human wisdom, which always proves insufficient and incapable of providing reliable help in navigating through life. The apostle Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say,

“He traps the wise
    in the snare of their own cleverness.”

And again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise;
    he knows they are worthless.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 NLT

Surviving in this world requires wisdom, but it must be wisdom that is founded on a relationship with God Almighty. The wisdom we need must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom becomes folly. Apart from God, man’s wisdom always proves insufficient and inadequate to comprehend the dangers of a fallen world and a foolish heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson